Decrying repeated failures by the state to better staff his office, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne called on Dane County officials Tuesday to approve three new attorney jobs for the DA’s office that were among those turned down in the latest state budget.
He also said prosecutors will be more selective about the cases they charge in light of caseloads that outstrip staffing levels.
Ozanne said the three attorney jobs he sought were not included in Dane County Executive Joe Parisi’s budget, so he is now asking the County Board to put the jobs into next year’s budget. He said that earlier, as he has done every year since 2011, he asked the state to add about a dozen new prosecutors to his office, but that request was denied.
Prosecutors are generally state jobs, funded by state money. Before 1990, prosecutors were paid by counties. Support staff for DA’s offices is generally provided by counties.
County Board Chairwoman Sharon Corrigan said, however, that no budget amendments seeking attorneys have been submitted, and even if one was, its prospects would be slim. The state is responsible for funding assistant district attorneys, she said, and it needs to step up and provide funding increases.
Ozanne said that given the shortage of staff, prosecutors will become more selective about the cases that they charge. He said priority will continue to be given to homicides, gun-related and violent crimes, sexual assaults, human trafficking, domestic violence and drunken driving, but other kinds of cases may not be prosecuted.
Ozanne declined to be specific about what kinds of cases those might be, only saying that “we are evaluating that right now.”
“We will continue to read every referral that comes into this office,” Ozanne said. “We will evaluate each individual case on its own merits. Unfortunately, there are going to be some tough decisions that we’re going to have to make.”
He said his office seeks alternative funding and grants for staff jobs, has restructured the office and curtailed some work outside the office in the community, but lawyers are still working nights and weekends to keep up.
“We are being taxed beyond our limits,” Ozanne said.
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Ozanne said he is asking Dane County for the three attorney positions because there is a “perfect storm” in the DA’s office in which almost all prosecutors with at least 20 years of experience have retired, and several mid-career prosecutors have taken jobs elsewhere, such as in the state Attorney General’s office or the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Younger lawyers don’t stay long, he said, because of high case volumes and little to no pay increases. This year, he said, that’s been challenged by Dane County’s highest number of homicides, along with many more non-fatal shooting incidents.
Ozanne called the situation “a public safety crisis,” a term he has used in the past to describe staff shortages in his office. He said the office continues to be staffed at the same level it was in 1985, despite a population in Dane County that has grown from about 300,000 to more than 500,000.
Ozanne is asking Dane County to fund a prosecutor who would specialize in serious traffic crashes, a sensitive crimes prosecutor and a violent felony case prosecutor. He said that some other counties, such as Brown, Eau Claire and Ozaukee, have funded attorneys to work as prosecutors.
Corrigan said the county’s funding of the DA’s office has increased from $3.7 million in 2011 to $5.2 million this year, as paralegals and support staff have been added, some to aid diversion programs as alternatives to prosecution.
A budget amendment asking for money for attorneys would have to be proposed in writing through a county committee, such as Public Protection and Judiciary, which met Tuesday and will meet again Monday. No amendment has been submitted, Corrigan said.
When Ozanne has sought money from the county for attorneys in the past, Corrigan said, the response from the board has been that funding for lawyers is a state function.
“We need to be able to rely on the state for doing the part that they’re responsible for,” Corrigan said.
Sheriff Dave Mahoney, appearing at a news conference with Ozanne, said law enforcement relies on attorneys in the DA’s office to represent crime victims in court, and said he applauds Ozanne’s decision to speak out Tuesday.
“It’s inexcusable that our state leaders, our lawmakers who are entwined in petty name-calling and arguments at the state level, fail to meet the needs of our citizens who are victims of crime,” Mahoney said.